Charting the future

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For many, Alexandrias West End often seems to be a sprawling hodgepodge of neighborhoods west of 
Quaker Lane that lacks the cohesion and youth opportunity found in other corners of the city.

But, really, what resources exist for Alexandrias teenage population?

Over the next month, a group of 16 T.C. Williams students will be the ones quizzing the community to find out.

As Community YouthMappers commissioned by the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria, their research data will chart a clearer picture of one of the citys most ambiguous areas. What they discover could affect city planning for years to come.

Standing in the morning shade of the Burke Branch Library on Seminary Road, Mayor Bill Euille and a handful of other city leaders offered words of encouragement to the young social cartographers before they set out for their first day of field work last Tuesday.

As mayor, I know this information will be valuable, Euille said. Each interview you conduct will be like solving a new piece of the puzzle.

And with the West Ends growth in recent years expected to continue well into the future, according to city population forecasts the puzzle is expanding.

Euille said the area is the fastest growing region of the city home to more than half of the city population, according to a recent study and has a higher percentage of young people than anywhere else, compounding the perception that resources for adolescents are sparse.

At the same time, many of the public schools in the western half of Alexandria are among its most crowded and still growing. The areas skyline, dominated by high-rise, high-density housing, makes it likely that the overall trend will continue.

And those feeling crowded out or out of the loop are the young adults with free time on their hands, time that cant be filled by pastimes of elementary school-age children.

Theres not a lot of opportunities but there are some, said mapper Beatrice Thomson. Theyre not marketing them right. Theyre not getting it out to teens our age.

From what hes seen, Tashawn Robertson, working with Thomson and three others on Tuesday, doesnt think theres as much out there for teens as for their younger siblings.

Nowadays the city caters more toward younger children, like between the ages of 5 and 12, Robertson said. Once you get beyond that age, its really harder for you to go hang out somewhere without getting into trouble.

Enter the YouthMappers.

The group began their work last week and will continue through August 13. Street by street, they will interview managers and leaders of businesses, nonprofit, faith-based groups and city facilities about where teens can go and what they can do in the West End.

The minimum-wage job will keep the students busy from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., four days a week.
On a sweltering Tuesday, the first stop for Thomsons group was the BB&T bank branch on South Van Dorn Street. Not the most youth-centric of businesses, but a jumping-off point.

Armed with clipboards and a comprehensive four-page survey, the students inquired about the community programs and services available, employment opportunities and observations of the neighborhoods youth culture.

Kevin Claggett, the branch manager and normally the one asking questions, was accommodating and patient. Once or twice, he replied to sheepish apologies with a calm, Thats OK.

After the fact, the students said their first foray wasnt all that intimidating.

I was nervous, but I enjoyed the whole process, Thomson said. When I went in I was thinking, This is your job, go for it.

I liked it, it makes you feel like youre more of an adult, Robertson added.

As for Minnie Howard student Daneisha Robinson, the lone West End resident in the group that visited the bank, the five weeks of work should make her more familiar with her surroundings.

I think Im going to learn how my part of town actually works, where I can go and where I can be accepted at, said Robinson. I know around here there arent many places I can go have fun theres a lot of places I could go and eat.

If certain opportunities for city teens do exist under-utilized the YouthMappers wont just document the situation. Theyll spread the word.

I think this benefits everyone, Robertson said. They kind of need us because we are the teens. If youre talking to us and saying what you offer, we talk to other teens.

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